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At this Virginia theater, the show — and the masks — must go on

Seven months into the pandemic, theater companies are still struggling to raise the curtain on live performances. But one regional company in rural Virginia hopes it has found a way for the show to go on -- in a way that’s safe. John Yang reports as part of our American Creators series on rural arts and Canvas, our ongoing coverage of arts and culture.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    To be or not to be. Seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, live theaters are struggling to raise the curtain.

    John Yang is back to take us to one regional company in rural Virginia that hopes it's found a way for the show go on, safely.

    It's part of our ongoing American Creators series on rural arts and Canvas, our coverage of arts and culture.

  • John Yang:

    Theater audiences have gotten used to admonitions about silencing cell phones, but unusual times call for unusual requests.

  • Man:

    We ask that you continue to wear your masks and wear them properly. If you do not wear them properly, we will kill you.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Man:

    If this pandemic doesn't.

  • John Yang:

    At the American Shakespeare Center, nestled in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, a rare sight, live theater, indoors, with a live audience, alternating performances of "Othello" and "Twelfth Night" through October 18.

  • Ethan McSweeny:

    Some of the very large organizations, I think they can afford to kind of run for the hills, wait for the wave to break and then come back and reopen.

  • John Yang:

    Artistic director Ethan McSweeny.

  • Ethan McSweeny:

    The small and mid-sized like us, our — I guess our solution was to surf the wave and hopefully stay afloat.

  • John Yang:

    McSweeny led an appropriately distanced tour of the 32-year-old company's theater.

  • Ethan McSweeny:

    You don't expect this when you come into the small town of Staunton, Virginia, and you walk into our sort of unprepossessing, rather ordinary lobby, and then you're in here, in this incredible, world's-only recreation of Shakespeare's indoor theater, the Blackfriars Playhouse.

  • John Yang:

    Like Shakespeare's 17th century Blackfriars, there is minimal scenery, no sound amplification, and universal lighting, illuminating both audience and actors.

    But unlike the Bard's theater, even though it operated at the time of the bubonic plague, there are elaborate safety precautions.

  • Ethan McSweeny:

    We started creating a series of protocols that we ended up calling SafeStart.

    We started with the workplace protocols and also added the audience protocols, many of which are the same and similar. But it was — I mean, obviously, as the name suggests, safety is the primary.

  • Man:

    Wonderful first day of rehearsals.

  • John Yang:

    For the actors, the plan, developed with medical advice, had an initial two-week quarantine, with rehearsals over Zoom. Next came in-person rehearsals, first with masks, and then gradually without.

    Backstage, personnel and management still must wear masks at all times. To let patrons choose the way they're most comfortable seeing a show, for the first time, the company added outdoor performances on the grounds of the nearby Blackburn Inn and streamed performances on the Internet.

    "Othello" is set in Venice at the time of the plague, so some scenes incorporate masks. Infection rates are relatively low in the area, and the company has not had any COVID cases.

    The performers have daily symptom checks, live in their own bubble in company-provided housing, and have signed an isolation covenant.

    Jessika D. Williams plays the title role in "Othello."

  • Jessika D. Williams:

    You know, this is not risk-free. It's like we have tightened it up. And I think we have done a great job. And we are all taking care of each other. And it's been working so far.

  • John Yang:

    John Harrell is in his 26th season with the theater.

  • John Harrell:

    I think we all know, at this point, the entire enterprise depends on our being responsible to a larger group.

    But that is a condition that ensemble actors are used to, whether it's COVID or other things. We all know — actors are always on time. And we always know our lines.

  • John Yang:

    From the stage, cast members keep an eye on whether audiences obey the requirement to keep their masks on. They can stop a performance at any time.

  • John Harrell:

    It adds a certain level of anxiety. It's like, well, she's taking a deep breath and going to put it right back on. Do I need to stop the show? What's — you know, what do I do? Do I alert the stage management. Am I — so, there's — it's just one more thing to be paying attention to and to juggling.

    But, so far, we haven't had — everybody's been really compliant with our rules.

  • John Yang:

    Seating capacity in the indoor theater has been cut by more than 50 percent. And the mask requirement for audiences has meant some adjustment for actors.

  • John Harrell:

    You're used to looking, all right, is that person smiling. Is that person on the verge of laughing at this joke? Do they look angry? Do they look bored? All of those cues that we take.

    But I have started noticing, you can see those cues anyway. It's just a little bit — you have to just pay a little bit more attention.

    So, it was odd at first. But, like with everything else in this pandemic, it's gotten easier and more — you just get more used to it.

  • John Yang:

    Audience members at a recent indoor matinee of "Othello" said they felt safe.

    Ezriona Prioleau and Kara Painter came from nearby Harrisonburg, Virginia.

  • Ezriona Prioleau:

    I mean, we were more than six feet away from the closest person. And so knowing that and seeing that makes it feel like they're doing all they can.

  • Kara Painter:

    Yes, and theater is probably about one of the oldest forms of art storytelling. So, like, bringing it back outside or bringing it inside, it's still just the same core of telling a story, telling people's points of view and kind of learning and growing with other people.

  • John Yang:

    Laura Lattimer and Shobhit Gupta traveled from Charlottesville, Virginia.

  • Laura Lattimer:

    I wish I weren't wearing a mask, but I think they made a good show that, kind of — they even wore their masks on stage, as you saw, at some points.

    So, I think recognizing the times is very Shakespeare, too, right? He recognized was going on in the world and played up to that. So I think it was very fitting, I suppose.

  • John Yang:

    Some said attending a live performance for the first time in nearly a year was surprisingly moving.

    Karen Marsh of Charlottesville.

  • Karen Marsh:

    I didn't realize how much I missed it.

    When the — before the performance started and they came out singing, I started weeping. And that was completely unexpected to me. But it was so powerful just to be in the presence of creative people doing art. It really was moving.

  • John Yang:

    The theater hopes it's found a way to provide more people with that experience during the pandemic, announcing that, in December, it will stage the holiday classic "A Christmas Carol."

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Staunton, Virginia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Bard would be pleased. So wonderful that they are doing this in Staunton.

    And thank you, John.

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